Brick Books, 2013
Perfect bound, 87 pgs
Reviewed by John McCarthy
When it comes to John Reibetanz’s Afloat, you will never have a better experience while drowning. The poems are a torrent of sublime flow. Water is the conduit for the soul that connects us to nature, connects us to history, connects us to other people, and connects us to ourselves. It is a completely round and fluid book.
Some nature poets have a tendency to alienate readers with a singular focus on nature without connecting it to any sort of relevant context. Reibetanz makes sure that we are shown all of life through the most important element needed to sustain it. “All nature wants to be water.” Water is our essence; we want to be water. We want to be that clarity. There is always a human yearning to become clean, wash away the past and become something whole and uncorrupt, and this yearning is a cathartic—painful but necessary—cleansing. “[I]t kisses you with salt.” Water is not only needed for life but for our inevitable wounds.
Reibetanz’s eighth collection of poems is a book of teaching and of song. It takes us back into our wounds, back into history, using water to demonstrate how we have progressed as a civilization. Juxtaposing ancient Chinese figures with the contemporary, he comments and expresses concern for the direction our figurative water is headed and what it might mean.
Through a constant flow of beautiful imagery, a musical mash-up of words resounds. The form takes on its own kind of ripple effect. With intentional spacing added to each line, every piece guides your eyes to move at a specific rhythm. There is a clean depth to this work. The surface of Afloat is the surface of a healthy lake, where you can see to the bottom. If you let the waves of each line carry you, you will see to the depths of each piece.
In “Luca della Robbia’s Singing Gallery,” we are given an example of how everything has a profundity and a flow, a movement of past and future attached to it or buried within:
Luca sees he is not alone in his longing
to free the rivers from the stone every gliding foot
his chisel strokes strokes feathers of water in the bed
The sculptures of Robbia, even as dried terra-cotta, are alive as effigies of the people they immortalize. They have a past that sings and dances if we let our eyes focus and calm our minds, we can see the haecceity sloshing within.
Music is a poignant measure behind Afloat. The form contributes to a kind of syncopated melody that attracts us to connote water with harmony, and there are countless references to water as musical instrument, the most interesting being “Airborne,” the concluding poem in the collection:
bone flute yet never thrilled with song until human breath
waking gave voice and lit to an upsurge dormant in
the marrow larynx turned syrinx in the throat of your
It is a striking visceral and primordial image illuminating how unity is something that we are composed and molded out of. Water being the simulacrum of unity, we are drawn that much closer back to our lifeblood.
Humanity’s sad reality of self-inflicted distance from water, from our history is something that is also noticed in the slipstream. Reibetanz makes an example out of China’s 130 million migrant workers who do not have a place to settle. Video games, as a consequence, become an escape mechanism from their perpetual nomadic lifestyles in the poem “Liudong Renkou.” They are unable to establish roots or trace their own. They are essentially “deaf to sound.”
Even in a geographical sense we have uprooted ourselves. Ancient civilizations used to settle along rivers, near a water source. They drank from rivers and cleaned themselves in rivers. Now we have all moved inland away from water, away from clarity.
There is a lot of transcendence happening in Reibetanz’s book. Poems such as “Sunthreads,” “Heavenly Upness,” and “Arise and Stay” all bring about a kind of ethereal voice. In these poems, water is trying to lead us to salvation, or maybe, nirvana. In “Sunthreads” there is a double meaning, one of literal meaning and one of enlightenment:
still songs to sing beyond
The “still songs” can be the actual songs that will be sung for eternity by human yearning, or they can be the songs that we hear when our minds are calm and the water is motionless, when we can see something that is beyond our own egos. It takes a strong appreciation of virtue to have such a clear outlook.
“Heaven lies about us in our infancy” is perhaps one of his truest aphorisms. To truly appreciate Afloat, you must be willing to take yourself back to pure thoughts. To pry open the bottom where Reibetanz has buried pearls, you must be willing to forgo your identity. Narcissus drowned trying to grab his reflection. If you want to avoid the same fate and appreciate a fuller existence, you must look at the water and see the water, not yourself. In this regard, Reibetanz has created, with Afloat, an earthly paradise where you can lie among heaven.
Eternity and timelessness and how they interact with death are cliché questions, exhausting with their inability to be answered, but they can be contented. Reibetanz mentions a “drowned river,” and death is a drowned river that we can “revive.” By accepting the natural flux of water and its many representations and manifestations, we can revive ourselves. We can content ourselves with the notion that by being a part of this immense and perennial existence of life, we will never die. Contained within in this book is a supreme dialogue with the senses and what it means to be at peace and understand the natural world.
John McCarthy’s poetry and fiction has appeared in, or is forthcoming in, Salamander, The First Line, Popshot, The Conium Review, and The Lindenwood Review, among others. He lives in Springfield, Illinois where he is the Assistant Editor of Quiddity International Literary Journal and Public-Radio Program. He has been a regional judge for the national Poetry Out Loud recitation contest and volunteers at the Vachel Lindsay Home. His website: johnmccarthylit.com